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Everything You Need To Know To Start (And Maintain) A Lasagna Garden

Julia Guerra
mbg Contributor By Julia Guerra
mbg Contributor
Julia Guerra is a health and wellness writer reporting for mindbodygreen, Elite Daily, and INSIDER.
lasagna gardening
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For anyone who wasn't born with a green thumb but loves the idea of growing their own vegetables and plants, there's a gardening tactic that doesn't require much grunt work or maintenance. It's called "lasagna gardening," and no, it doesn't involve cheese, pasta, or tomato sauce (unfortunately).

In fact, the term "lasagna gardening" (also referred to as layered gardening or sheet mulching) has nothing to do with what you're growing but has everything to do with how you grow it. Here's everything you need to know to get started with the technique.

Why lasagna gardening is known as "lazy gardening."

According to Janet Melrose and Sheryl Normandeau, authors of the series The Guides for the Prairie Gardener, lasagna gardening entails layering organic materials on top of one another to decompose into a gardening bed.

Similar to how the ingredients of a traditional pasta dish become warm and flavorful in the oven, these organic materials "cook" over time thanks to the heat generated by the soil.

This is a no-till (aka no-dig) technique that requires hardly zero maintenance. All you have to do is build the layers and let nature take its course, hence the nickname, "lazy gardening." 

And not only is lasagna gardening a simple, beginner-friendly way to garden, but it's also an easy way to compost in your own backyard, Melrose and Normandeau explain.

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Pros of the technique:

1. It improves the quality of your soil.

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Lasagna gardening's "layer and leave it" method provides a suitable environment for beneficial microorganisms in soil to carry out their work naturally.

The layers also lock in nutrients throughout the season and can keep weeds at bay (without the need for chemicals), notes Angelo Randaci, Earth's Ally master gardener and horticulture expert at Sarasota Green Group.

2. It's another way to recycle household waste.

In simplest terms, lasagna gardening really is just another way of recycling fully biodegradable materials, Melrose and Normandeau explain.

"One of the important layers of lasagna gardening involves the use of cardboard or newspaper. The other layers include organic wastes such as trimmings from plants that you have pruned, twigs, and dried leaves—all wastes that should be going into a composter, anyway," they tell mbg.

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3. It can help out the environment.

In addition to being a chemical-free gardening method, since lasagna gardening uses waste materials, it also reduces the amount of trash you're sending to the landfill or recycler.

Cons of the technique:

1. It can be slow.

While you can choose to plant your new bed shortly after it is made, Melrose and Normandeau tell mbg most gardeners wait a few months before planting in order to give the materials time to properly decompose.

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2. It's not suitable for large gardens.

If you dream of a large garden filled with various vegetables and plants, lasagna gardening might not be the technique for you, as it would require a huge amount of materials to get it going. For small gardens, however, Melrose and Normandeau say it can be "an excellent choice."

3. You need to be careful about what you add to it.

Not all paper products are created equal, so you have to be very careful when choosing which ones to use in your garden.

Some paper products contain harmful dyes and petroleum that can leak into your soil and contaminate your garden, Randaci warns, so you want to avoid things like newspapers with colored ink.

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How to make a lasagna garden.

Aside from being stellarly low-maintenance, lasagna gardening also doesn't require a bunch of moving pieces to get set up. Here is a list of tools you'll need (plus, a few that would be nice to have) and a step-by-step guide for getting started.

What you'll need:

  • Layering materials (for green and brown layers; more on what can go in each below)
  • A shovel to arrange and layer your materials in the ground
  • A watering can or access to a hose
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Optional (but helpful) tools: 

  • A wheelbarrow to transport your materials
  • A lawnmower to shred leaves and other like materials
  • Gardening gloves
  • A pair of boots

Step 1: Map out the perfect area.

According to Randaci, the site of your lasagna bed should be level, receive at least six hours of direct sun every day, and have a water source nearby. From there, you should remove any stones and fill holes. While you can add a barrier to hold your layers in place (think stones, timbers, etc.) or raise the bed, it's not necessary. 

Step 2: Gather your materials.

A lasagna garden is only as good as the sum of its parts. In other words, the materials you use to construct your layers will affect their quality.

There are two types of layers to collect materials for: nitrogen layers, which are made up of green materials, and carbon layers, made up of brown materials. Here's what goes in each:

For the brown (carbon) layer:

  • Black-and-white newspaper
  • Cardboard
  • Sawdust,
  • Wood chips
  • Dry leaves

For the green (nitrogen) layer:

Step 3: Make the first layer.

The first layer in your lasagna garden will be a carbon layer. Lay your cardboard and/or newspaper down so it completely covers the ground, Melrose and Normandeau instruct. Then, water the layer so that it is thoroughly soaked.

Step 4: Make the second layer.

Next, pile on an assortment of 4 to 5 inches' worth of small twigs and branches. You can also include plant trimmings if you have recently pruned the perennials in your garden, Melrose and Normandeau tell mbg. Water this layer.

Step 5: Make the third layer.

Here's where your nitrogen materials come into play. Create a layer, roughly 2 inches deep, of kitchen scraps, compost, and/or animal manure, and follow up with about 8 to 10 inches of dried leaves and/or straw, watering them as you go.

Watering is crucial, as the moisture is what's going to help your layers decompose properly and efficiently, Melrose and Normandeau explain.

Step 6: Cover and repeat accordingly.

Once you've laid down all three layers of your "lasagna," you can cover the area with a tarp to speed up the decomposition process. (This will help the bed contain moisture and stay warm).

Check in every so often to see how it's progressing. As the materials of your bed start to break down, you can add more layers if you'd like. Just remember to water those dry materials.

Step 7: Plant.

"When the soil is loose and crumbles in your hand," you're ready to plant, Randaci says. This can take anywhere from six to 12 months, so it's best to start the process in the fall if you're hoping to plant by summer.

Tips to optimize your lasagna garden:

1. Get creative when sourcing materials.

Avid gardener and founder of Hello Gardening Michael Alves tells mbg that when it comes to collecting materials, it's best to take advantage of every resource available to you.

This includes going to your local park to collect fallen leaves, asking local retailers if they have any unwanted cardboard they're willing to part with, reaching out to local restaurants for organic waste at the end of the day, and even contacting local cafes for coffee-ground waste.

2. Add beer to speed up the process.

Alves tells mbg that wetting your lasagna garden with beer can help keep the pile moist and nitrogenous. Plus, he says, the beer "helps bacteria break down organic matter faster," meaning it'll be ready for planting sooner.

3. Remember that smaller materials decompose faster.

Another way to speed up the "cooking" process of your lasagna garden is to pay close attention to the size of the ingredients you're adding to the pile. For example, "Paper or cardboard that is shredded will decompose faster," Randaci says, and the same goes for leaves. 

"A leaf shredder or lawn mower can be used to cut up your leaves," he adds. 

FAQs:

What is the best time of year to make a lasagna garden?

According to a handful of gardening experts who spoke to mbg, autumn is considered the best time of year to create your lasagna garden. "It will then have all winter to break down, leading to nutrient-rich and fluffy soil in the spring, when you can start planting," says Clive Harris, creator of DIY Garden.

What types of foods/plants grow best in a lasagna garden?

Because the soil created in a lasagna garden is very nutrient-rich, Harris tells mbg it can be used to plant "virtually anything" from vegetables to fruits, herbs, and flowers.

Is there a certain skill level someone should have in order to create a lasagna garden?

After the initial layering, lasagna gardening is very low maintenance, making it great for beginners. However, because it is a slow process, Harris says having a little patience is helpful.

What should I do about weeds?

"The reason I recommend using cardboard or newspaper as the bottom layer is to protect your pile against weeds," Harris says, but the good news is, lasagna gardens generally have far fewer weeds than traditional flower beds, anyway. "In fact, lasagna gardens are often used as a method of planting for weed control," Harris adds. "Adding mulch to the top layer will also deter weeds."

How can I start using it right away?

Lasagna gardens typically take a good amount of time to cook. However, you can speed up the process by adding twice as much brown material as you do green, Harris says.

"If you want to plant in your lasagna garden straight away, you'll need to add topsoil or peat in between the layers, then add a few inches of gardening soil to the top." However, the soil won't be quite so rich if you take this route.

How can I preserve my lasagna bed in the off-season so it's ready for next year?

There are a few things you can do to preserve your lasagna bed during the off-seasons. To stop lighter layers from blowing away, Harris suggests adding heavier materials on top. Adding mulch will deter weeds from forming.

"I [also] recommend spreading cayenne pepper and cinnamon onto your lasagna garden every once in a while," Harris tells mbg. "This will deter rats and mice, as well as prevent fungal disease."

The bottom line.

If you're interested in flexing your green thumb, lasagna gardening is an excellent and eco-friendly technique for beginner gardeners to get their hands dirty (pun intended). But if it's just the composting element you're after, check out this guide to composting for beginners.

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